Hillary Clinton shattered a political glass ceiling

Despite some sexism on the campaign trail and in the media, her gender won many votes, too.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTers
A triumph of sorts: Although there were missteps at crucial points in her campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton broke a political glass ceiling in nearly winning her party's nomination.

Many of the factors that led Hillary Rodham Clinton's historic presidential campaign to fall short are by now well-cataloged.

The New York senator based her initial message on inevitability, toughness, and experience when the public was clamoring for change. She underestimated the importance of small caucus states, barely competing in some, and allowed Barack Obama to rack up a lead in pledged delegates that proved impossible to overcome.She assumed she would have the nomination wrapped up on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday, and when she didn't, had to scramble to organize and raise more money. She got beaten by Senator Obama in Internet fundraising and organizing. And her husband, the former president, proved at crucial times to be a liability.

But with Senator Clinton prepared to suspend her campaign Saturday, gender does not belong on that list, analysts say. Certainly, she encountered sexism on the trail and in media coverage, and a quick cruise around the Web could have found some of the crudest examples of misogyny imaginable aimed at her. But being female did not cost her the nomination.

"No, it was a good thing," says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. "I think she got support because she's a woman. I think Barack Obama is getting support because he's African-American. It's because people want something different. Both campaigns are historic, and the [simultaneous] timing is unfortunate."

A new CBS News poll shows most voters think that by making a serious run for the Democratic nomination, Clinton made it easier for other women to run for president. Sixty percent of men and 76 percent of women agree with that statement. Among Democrats, 75 percent agree; among Republicans, it's 63 percent.

Overall, 88 percent of voters agree with the statement "I am glad to see a woman as a serious contender for president." In 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro made history as the first female vice-presidential nominee for a major party, a CBS poll found only 62 percent of voters were "glad that a woman was nominated."

Earlier this year, Ms. Ferraro made headlines again when she suggested that Obama's race gave him an advantage, and in a column in The Boston Globe, she spoke of Democratic women's anger over how sexism hurt Clinton's candidacy.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says key gender-related moments on the eve of the New Hampshire primary led women to rush to her side and handed her a narrow victory, saving her campaign.

"I think four moments put together signaled to women something was happening here that was unfair, and they rallied," says Ms. Jamieson.

One was when Clinton was asked about her likability in the ABC-TV debate. She quipped that the question had hurt her feelings, says Jamieson, while Obama "peevishly" called her "likable enough."

Another episode came at a Clinton event in Salem, N.H., when a young man yelled "Iron my shirt." Third was the moment at a New Hampshire diner, when Clinton teared up over a question about the rigors of the campaign. And fourth was a response by Democratic candidate John Edwards questioning Clinton's ability to hold up as commander in chief.

In the Iowa caucuses, where Clinton came in third, entrance polls showed 35 percent of women voters favored Obama, versus 30 percent for Clinton. Five days later in New Hampshire, which Clinton won by just 2 points, 46 percent of white women voted for her and 33 percent for Obama.

Still, Jamieson believes Clinton's campaign was hurt at other times by unequal media treatment. On Feb. 10, CBS's "60 Minutes" featured interviews with both Clinton and Obama. In the Clinton interview, Katie Couric asked soft questions – some of them inappropriately gender-specific, Jamieson says. One example: "Someone told me your nickname in school was Miss Frigidaire. Is that true?" Obama, in his interview with Scott Pelley, was asked about policy.

Examples of sexist language aimed at Clinton in the media during the campaign are legion. Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh asked: "Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes?" MSNBC host Chris Matthews had to apologize on-air for a comment he had made suggesting Clinton wouldn't be contending for the presidency if husband Bill hadn't "fooled around" with Monica Lewinsky. Another MSNBC reporter, David Shuster, was suspended temporarily after joking that the campaign was "pimping out" Clinton's daughter, Chelsea.

Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist, says watching Clinton grapple with the gender issue reminds him of now-Sen. Dianne Feinstein's race for California governor in 1990.

"We always tried to make sure what we were telling the voters was not just a narrow definition of Dianne Feinstein, but a complete definition," he says. "She was a great leader, and a very empathetic person who worked on issues that impact average people."

In Clinton's case, he says, by the time she got to the Texas and Ohio primaries, she became a much stronger candidate, because her message focused on how she would stand up for people and solve healthcare and economic problems. But by then, she had come off an 11-contest losing streak, and Obama's lead in pledged delegates had proved insurmountable.

Clinton’s vaunted strength among women voters, particularly older women, has by now flowered into a movement that rivals in some ways the movement that coalesced early around Obama.

Clinton may not have been able to summon Obama-sized numbers of people to her rallies, but polls show a fervency to her supporters’ feeling that in some ways is stronger than Obama supporters’. Exit polls in the later Democratic primaries showed Clinton voters less willing to vote for Obama in November than vice versa.

Now that Clinton has lost the nomination, how her supporters behave will be crucial to Obama’s prospects against Republican John McCain. And thus all eyes will be on Clinton Saturday when she suspends her race and expresses her support for Obama. Going forward, the question is, how hard will she work for Obama, and will her supporters follow her lead? 

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